The Spencer Mansion. Never had a building been so aptly designed to resemble its namesake. It was all at once viciously secretive, and languidly ostentatious. It lacked subtlety in any shape or form, and yet somehow managed to keep its true nature concealed from everyone except those who were too deeply mired in its atrocities to be able to escape it and speak out. Entrenched in the bitter evergreen of the Arkley forest, it effortlessly mislead the senses into believing it was a relic,ancient and out of touch with the real world, and yet it harboured some of the most cutting edge instruments of destruction, a bitter fusion of old school amorality and blindingly modern science.
That had been the real genius of George Trevor's schematics. Not the traps, or the concealment, or the effortless integration of a high tech laboratory complex amidst sprawling neo-Victorian aesthetics. No, any architect worth his salt could have managed that. But Trevor had given the Spencer mansion something far more elusive than this. He had incorporated the essence of his employer, woven into every single pencil mark and detail on those blueprints, until the mansion was not simply a building owned by Oswell E Spencer, it was a testimony to his cruelty, a physical manifestation of its owner's personality.
Perhaps this was why it was almost impossible to walk through those ornate corridors, and observe that décor, which somehow managed to stop just short of being laughably tasteless and was, instead, simply vaguely sinister, without being able to shake the feeling that Spencer himself was looking over your shoulder.
At least, this had always been Albert Wesker's opinion. Bafflingly, his colleague William did not seem to share this guarded unease.
But then again, William Birkin was the very definition of "preoccupied". Obsessive and driven, the entirety of his self worth was inexorably tangled with his scientific achievements, to the neglect of all other things. Wesker was a naturally observant soul, and if there was one thing that shone through in William's personality as his most glaringly dangerous trait, it was this precarious superiority complex which was borne from the scientist's desperately possessive need to carve out his own place in the world.
William, from what Albert could gather, had never had much of a childhood. It is a sad but true fact that when a child shows signs of academic brilliance, this swiftly becomes the aspect of their personality by which they are forever defined. And Albert had a sneaking suspicion that the only reason William had made the transition from child to young adult with such relative ease was the fact that he had a reassuringly long list of outstanding achievements which were continually being added to his name.
Albert had also been a brilliant child, had effortlessly outranked each and every one of his peers, and had fully expected to be the youngest person in the room when, at the age of seventeen, he had first walked through the doors of the Umbrella Training Facility. But he had also been blessed with the maturity of foresight, and had reasoned that even so, one day he would meet someone whose aptitude for science outshone even his considerable abilities. He hadn't expected that day to come so soon, but William Birkin had been that person. But Albert Wesker had other talents to his name, and had other ambitions in life that went beyond simply churning out bioweapons. So he had accepted William's brilliant calmly, and thwarted numerous unsuccessful attempts at fostering rivalry and resentment between the two. And William for his part, had quickly realised that Wesker, while worthy of respect, posed no threat to his unparalleled title of youngest, smartest, and most outstanding researcher. And Spencer, cunning as he was, must have realised somewhere along the line that they made an excellent, if incongruous little team, and stopped trying to pit them against one another. "Scholarly Will and practical Al." It was a friendship with a certain sense of balance.
So far, so good, and four dysfunctional years later, William was an erratic, obsessive, unhealthy and mentally unstable nineteen year old with the world's worst intellectual superiority complex, and Albert was a slightly more well rounded twenty one year old with a taste for internal politics, manipulation, and a unique ability to keep his brilliant but unstable friend under some kind of control. Between the two of them, they were keeping productivity at a maximum, results were coming thick, fast, and continuous, and everyone was more or less satisfied. And if he sometimes felt like William's babysitter, then that was tough, because he knew that this was exactly the role Spencer had cast him in, and it was never, ever a clever idea to question these things. Not if you wanted a future within the company. Hell, not if you wanted a future, full stop.
As Wesker hurriedly made his way past a group of gossiping lower level researchers, the latest issue of the company quarterly bulletin clutched a little too tightly in his hand, he thought about William, about how he had gone through his life moving from larger to larger ponds...school, university, the training facility, Arkley...and yet had still always been the biggest fish. His brilliance had never been challenged, and Albert really wouldn't have been surprised if he'd honestly believed himself to be the best in the world.
But William Birkin was about to learn a painful lesson in humility.
Little Miss Alexia Ashford, the granddaughter of Edward Ashford, one of the trio who had founded Umbrella. A young girl who had surprised everyone, not least her own inbred, aristocratic family, by graduating from a prestigious Parisien university, smashing all known precedents and taking a head researcher position within at the tender age of ten. It was lucky that William didn't watch the television, Albert thought with a bitter little smile. And if he was luckier still, perhaps he could break the news to William in his own tactful way, before someone else had the chance to. After all, Dr Birkin was far from a popular figure in the workplace, and people would be falling over themselves to see the look on his face at such an acute humiliation. Yes, just about all of Arkley had been waiting for the moment when young William would be taken down a peg or two, and if Wesker could possibly help it, he wouldn't let anyone have that satisfaction.
He entered the lab and studied his friend's face carefully, bracing himself for a tirade of hysterics. But none came.
So far, so good.
"Albert?" William's gaunt features were creased into a puzzled frown, and not for the first time, Wesker found himself thinking that the teenager could do with some sleep, and a decent meal. But William always had a perpetually malnourished look to him, his skin sickly pale and sun-starved, his grey-blue eyes dark-rimmed and bloodshot. It was just how William normally looked, and it was only in moments like these, when he was actively contemplating his friend's wellfare, that he realised just how unhealthy he probably was. But then again, this was hardly the kind of career you picked if you wanted a long life and plenty of fat grandchildren. William was making history, and that was all that mattered to him.
"Hmmm?" Wesker replied as non-committally and nonchalantly as possible. If he started to make a big deal out of this, then William was bound to lose it even more.
William cocked his head to one side inquisitively, and bit his lip in a residually childish gesture, shaking a sandy strand of hair out of his eyeline. "Why is everyone laughing at me today?"
And here we go...
"Maybe it's because you desperately need a haircut," Albert responded with what he hoped was good natured playfulness. Disarm him first, make the whole thing seem like it was really nothing.
William wrinkled his nose and ran a hair through his hair, which in addition to needing a trim, was also in dire need of a wash. Were those the same clothes he'd been wearing yesterday, and the day before? It was hard to tell with William, and it was hard to tell with Arkley in general. Days seemed to blend into one another with frightening vagueness. Sometimes it was easy to feel like you were getting cabin fever. "No, seriously, Albert."
"Look, it's nothing, ok?" Wesker's tone was a little more stern than he would have liked it to have been, as he put a hand on his friend's shoulder and sat him down. "Just some news from another branch of the company. It's nothing that's going to affect you, your position, or your work here."
"I don't understand. What's so funny?" William's voice was plaintive, and he reminded Albert, as he so often did, of the geeky kid that everyone picked on in school, the one who hid in the toilets at breaktime and took refuge in his books as a substitute for a social life. Everyone knows the type, who quickly and harshly discovers that he'll never be able to integrate himself socially, and so takes a kind of bizarre, massochistic pleasure in being an outcast, a tortured genius, but who secretly and wistfully watches the carefree and easy interactions of the other kids, longing for that elusive sense of inclusion even while telling himself that he is above all of that.
Wesker took a deep breath, and sat down next to him. "Look," he said gently, and was once again thankful that he'd managed to get to William first, "It's really nothing to concern yourself about, but you're going to hear eventually, so I might as well tell you. You know the Ashfords?"
A derisive little smirk appeared on William's face. "What about them? Dr Marcus says that those aristocratic parasites haven't produced anything useful in generations."
Albert forced a small smile at the comment, and shrugged. "Well, it turns out that Edward's granddaughter is actually something of a prodigy. I doubt she'll amount to much, and I'm sure it has a lot to do with her influential family, so you really shouldn't let it concern you, but she's been made head researcher over at the Antarctic facility. It's a big noise at the moment, but everyone will have forgotten about it in a few weeks."
The younger man visibly paled a little, something Wesker hadn't been entirely sure was possible, given his already corpse-like pallour. It was apparent that William was putting two and two together and coming up with what would undoubtedly be the single greatest blow his ego had ever taken. "How...old is she?" he asked hesitantly, with the air of a man who distinctly did not want to know the answer.
And this was it. The moment that William would be dragged into reality, kicking and screaming, at the realisation that he had, for the first time in his life, been one-upped on his very own turf.